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Top Stories This Week in the Chronicle.
February 16, 2007

Keli Zehnder elected new head of Cleveland
Stonewall Dems

Cleveland--The Cleveland Stonewall Democrats elected a new president at their February 8 meeting, following Patrick Shepherd’s resignation to focus on his other commitments.

Executive vice president Keli Zehnder was elected unanimously to the post, along with a slate of candidates for the  vice presidential roles. Zehnder worked on Heights Families for Equality’s 2003 campaign to pass the Cleveland Heights domestic partners registry.

Jeff Zelmer, currently the treasurer of the political action committee, will be the vice president of fundraising. At the first meeting of the new board, PAC elections will be held, and he will be moving to deputy treasurer of the PAC, while Molly Mohan will assume the responsibilities of PAC treasurer, leaving behind the role of vice president for political strategy.

Taking Mohan’s place is Neil Vakharia, leaving the position of vice president of fundraising.

Veteran activist and writer Fern Levy will be vice president for media relations, while Drew Mosley will retain the position of vice president for membership.

Loretta Feller, another newcomer to the board, will be vice president for public policy, while Susan Hagan and Joe Bahhur will be co-vice presidents for volunteer coordination.

Jean Kosmac retains the position of treasurer, while Tony Ellis will become the secretary.

Rob Rivera, the chair of the Cleveland Stonewall Democrats East Side Caucus, is set to replace Zehnder as executive vice president at the next executive committee meeting. The executive vice president heads Stonewall’s political action committee.

Shepherd’s January 24 resignation announcement noted that he was in the last year the co-chair of the Ohio Democratic Party LGBT Caucus, an executive committee member of the Ohio Democratic Party, on the board of directors for the National Stonewall Democrats and an executive committee member of the Cuyahoga County Democrats as well as the president of the Cleveland Stonewall Democrats.

All of that was in addition to his job with the Cleveland Film Society, which will stage the Cleveland International Film Festival next month.

“As my responsibilities escalated, I began to realize that it was unwise for a single person to occupy all of these leadership positions,” he wrote to his members.

“Patrick was really good at putting together a strong team that works together,” Zehnder said.

“I certainly don’t believe that this is me alone. This is about the team. It’s about all the board officers; I’m just the person who takes the heat,” she laughed.

While ascending to the leadership of an organization made famous by Shepherd is a daunting task, Zehnder feels confident that she can take the Cleveland Stonewall Democrats forward by being, like Shepherd, a responsive and responsible leader.

“It’s about getting input from the team and figuring out where the organization wants to move forward,” she noted. “I think the political climate is such that now is the time that we as LGBT people ask for what we deserve and we stop being willing to take crumbs from the table.”

“The political leaders in this town have acknowleged that we deserve equal rights, and now I think it’s time to hold their feet to the fire,” Zehnder stressed. “You want to be seen as being supportive of LGBT people, let’s see some real action.”

Pressuring politicians, however, will not be her only goal. She also wants to make connections with the greater community.

“I also feel that it’s very important for Stonewall to reach out more to our straight allies. We need to reach out to them and get their support as well,” she said.

She pointed to the efforts of Citizens to Restore Fairness in Cincinnati, where a movement that was, at its core, made up of LGBT people reached out and formed a coalition that reached across lines of race, class and sexual orientation. She was impressed by the presence of top African American clergy in Cincinnati signing on to the effort to repeal the city’s anti-gay charter amendment.

“I think that the religious right has sold us a bill of good about who is anti-gay, how they are anti-gay, and it paralyzes us as a movement,” she indicated. “For example, we believe that all black religious leaders are anti-gay, and that’s not true. The religious right finds three black ministers who are anti-gay and stands them up, and that’s not fair.”

“It not fair to us in the gay community and it’s not fair to the black community,” she said. “My work with HFE smashed that for me.”

Perhaps her greatest challenge, however, will center around the closet--not coming out of it, but replacing what is in it.

“I’m going to have to changed my preferred way of dressing if I’m going to start being more visible,” she laughed. “No more classic dyke uniform of jeans and flannel shirts any more.”

At the Cleveland City Council meeting on February 12, the council honored Shepherd and the Cleveland Stonewall Democrats. Unfortunately for Zehnder, they wanted her to stand up as well.

“I showed up with two kids in tow, in jeans and a flannel shirt, next to Patrick in his three-piece suit,” she lamented. “What a moment.”





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